Charlie Chaplin’s contribution to political reform

In the 1940s, a film released starring Charlie Chaplin called ‘The Great Dictator’ featured a 5-minute speech by a ‘reluctant dictator’.[1] The movie was of course caricaturing a benevolent dictator, or so I’m inclined to believe, however its worth examining values of the day, to appraise its relevance today. A great many see some poignancy to the speech today. I have taken it upon myself to critique the passage.

 “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone”.

The fact is that dictators convey a great love of country and countrymen. They are driven to impose on people’s lives in order to excise ‘good intentions’. i.e. They assume responsibility for everyone, and by implication, they have to impose upon everyone. You might wonder whether they:

  1. Genuinely care about others
  2. Use ‘good intentions’ as a manipulative tool to win support, or a popular sanction.

“I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery”.

In most cases, a politician will start out with good intentions, however the absence of the ‘validation’ they seek, ultimately leads them, not to give people what people need, but what they want. That context dropping expectation ultimately causes strife, so they are compelled to impose upon a wealthy minority in order to serve the majority. The implication of these events is that there is a pressing need to expand the minority to serve a shrinking majority, until such a point, where coercion and fear become prerequisites.

In times of compromises, the values of the leader result in a change in language. There is a dispensation to speak of the ‘human condition’ or ‘human nature’ rather tragically. Humans are weak, corruptible, stooped in misery. If there is any positive gesture to be directed at humans, it alludes to their caring ‘altruistic’ nature.

“We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone”.

Of course people don’t want to hate, but they feel entitled to impose on others when you set up an expectation that ‘your brother is your keeper’. You don’t hate people who are different if their point of difference is no imposition upon you. You are not indifferent to them, because if you are in a position of generosity, you appreciate that they are a value to others. Immigrants are often the strongest contributors, as long as they start off respecting your values, because they don’t expect you to be their keeper. In fact, they learn that they need to earn your respect.

“And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way”.

Indeed, there is no shortage of food, energy or opportunity in the world if people have the right values, and people are not undermined by regulatory impositions. The truth is that, Charlie Chaplin highlighted the fact that society had lost its way – back even in 1940. So what was it that was amiss? The popular idea is that:

  1. Society became less fair
  2. Society became more materialistic

Charlie Chaplin leaves nothing to ambiguity. He states:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….”.

The problem with the concept of ‘greed’ is that it is am ambiguous idea. What do people mean by that? Does greed mean:

  1. Wanting too much – like it’s a source of anxiety – like a drug fix
  2. Wanting more than one’s fair share – that’s to say, one is prepared to act unethically to achieve material possessions

These ideas are not in themselves wrong, however there is a great deal of ambivalence about the source or nature of this greed, and the implications for society. The problem is that people think the answer to this ‘ambiguous greed’ is:

  1. Redistribution or collectivized retribution – that the unfair gains of some in the past justifies the wholesale theft of wealth in the future. One can see how this thinking could scare, not just ‘unearned wealth’, but even those who struggled to get it, or the politicians rich enough to get elected, or associated with parties based on political patronage drawing support from wealthy people.
  2. Renunciation of self-interest on the premise that one’s self interest is injurious to others because it compels one to impose on others. This idea of self-interest culminates in a ‘slippery slope’ view of the world that holds that one needs to reign in the ‘unbridled ego’, just as one has to quash the spirit of a horse.

In reality, humans require an interest in their self-preservation and greater prosperity. When one attempts to quash the human spirit, one has an analogous impact to chemotherapy. One kills what is good in mankind, as well as what is bad. The folly of this approach is its indiscriminate nature. The beauty of the human mind is that it has the power to differentiate between ‘good and bad’, and that people don’t need to renounce their interests. They need only encouragement to identify them, and thereafter to find the motivation to pursue them. They don’t need ‘help’. Helping people beyond their immediate needs only steals people of their purpose in life. Their purpose it assumption of personal responsibility. That is their gift to others – preserving themselves so that they may be potentially a source of value for the community. Usefulness, not for the sake of the community, but selfishly, for their own good. When we spurn selfishness, we spurn the will to live. What we need to acknowledge is the value of self-interest, and the arbitrary values that prompt people to renounce reasonable values for unqualified expectations that do in fact impose on others.

“The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people”.

The aeroplane is a technology that brings us together or pulls us a part. The reality is that prosperity has more than anything else allowed us to avoid or distance ourselves from the values of old, and to seek privacy in ‘solitary lives’ and pursuits on our terms. Solitude is an opportunity cost. It is far preferable to engage in communities where people serve each other in some shared purpose. The reality is that most people are reticent to give up the privacy of their inner consciousness, because whilst people might value the mind, they don’t really value ‘ideas’, the products of the mind. Many people consider ideas ‘commonplace’, and the discipline of action, as the real foundation of prosperity.

The foundation of ideas, of innovation, is not the ‘needs of men’, but rather a selfish desire by a lone individual to solve a problem. It is true that this system precipitates the victimization of men, and yet here we are 70 years later, celebrating our ‘democratic tradition’.

“To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish”.

The reality is that the misery has persisted in a new form because the evils that enslaved humanity in the past, in the 1940s, have merely taken a new form. The evil of the autocrat has been replaced with the indifferent sanction of the masses, who have only granted the ‘dictator’ a veil of secrecy. Our politicians do not serve humanity; they serve themselves by aligning themselves with powerful people.

“Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!”

This is an ambiguous message because it fails to identify the nature of this ‘abuse’ and the nature of this control. The truth is that people accept ‘mindless routines’ as a matter of personal discipline in pursuit of greater material efficiency. Some roles are construed as mindless, however the reality is that technology is freeing humanity of those mindless tasks, perhaps faster than would be deemed prudent for workers estranged from jobs. The ludicrous push for ‘higher pay’ is only forcing McDonalds to replace workers with machines. Yet Chaplin tells us humans are being treated as machines. No, our leaders are forcing us to treat us like machines, because something unnatural is demanded of them. The mob demands that the politician satisfy every arbitrary want of the mob, and the politician concedes to this, because they want to preserve their job.

‘In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure’.

Ambiguous texts should not serve as the justification for human action. Submitting to gods is just as perilous as submitting to men because eventually it is a man purporting to impose unnatural standards upon other men, in the name of their religious ‘virtue’. The implication is that the ‘morality of one man’ becomes the foundation for the subordination of all men. Only in a collectivist society could one man assume such a brazen position by espousing platitudes. For statists, ‘you have the power’ is a call to ‘subjugate others’. ‘Your freedom’ is the obligation of others to support other’s freedom. ‘Your wonderful adventure’ becomes subsidized by those who want to work, but are obliged to support adventures.

“Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!”

Chaplin concedes that democracy is a basis for collective power. He makes the argument that we ‘need to fight’, not understand. These ‘fighting words’ are an incitement to violence. He hypocritically then says ‘the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power’. So on what basis are we expected to trust him, or his advocacy? He argues they are liars and are incapable of ‘fulfilling that promise’. So what is his pre-qualification?

“Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”

Chaplin here conveys here that ‘the good fight’ is seemingly to fight to release ourselves from tyranny, and the unfulfilled promise. He appears to be an enemy of the state that enslaves humanity, but he seems oblivious to the values underlying society that prompts people to seek out statism. He celebrates a ‘world of reason’ and science, but he doesn’t see democracy for the legalized extortion racket that it is. Why? His predilection for believing humanity has an ‘evil nature’ compels him to think humans need to tempered, even after conveying that humans are treated like cattle. He therein substitutes the acknowledgement of ‘particular cases of vice’ with ‘social standards’ for admonishing vice, which ultimately means that, by default, Chaplin was a misguided revolutionary for this era. This does not explain his failure, since his message did resonate with people. It however is not a message that rests on people’s celebration of conviction, but rather on the emotiveness of romantics who don’t embrace conviction, or who have otherwise struggled to achieve sufficient intellectual clarity. This of course doesn’t stop them from motivating others, but they are perhaps destined to leave people to cynicism. This is however a step along an evolutionary path. Chaplin was not the last person to take a step. This website is a step, and there are a minority of people making inroads in their own way.


[1] “The Great Dictators Speech” by Charlie Chaplin, from the movie ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940), website, retrieved 13th Feb 2016.



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